Thousands of miles from home, Ukrainian players of an ancient Japanese sport prepare for an upcoming tournament, in another corner of the world. A team of Ukrainian sumo wrestlers whose training was interrupted by Russia’s invasion is aiming for global glory after a monthlong camp in Japan.
The six-strong Ukrainian amateur sumo team will fly to the US state of Alabama on Tuesday to compete in the World Games, an Olympic-like event featuring sports that are not contested at the Summer Games.
The team had just finished a training session at their base in the city of Kharkiv when Russia invaded in late February and the city came under bombardment. An acquaintance organized for them to hold a training camp in Japan and the team are now raring to go when the Games begin in Birmingham on July 7.
“Rockets are falling all over Ukraine and things are being destroyed everywhere,” said Ivanna Berezovska, a silver medallist in the open-weight category at the 2017 World Games and one of two women in the team. “Competing at the World Games, first of all I want to give myself something to be happy about and then I want to give people back home something to cheer.”
Professional sumo is confined to Japan but the ancient sport is popular at the amateur level around the world. There are around 3,000 people involved in sumo in Ukraine and the country has been one of the most successful nations since the sport made its official World Games debut in 2005. The Ukrainian team arrived in Japan in late May and held training camps in southern Oita and Ehime Prefectures.
Their first base, in the city of Usa, is known as the birthplace of the great yokozuna Futabayama, who set a record of 69 straight wins in the 1930s that still stands to this day.
Ukraine coach Liubov Korobko said the team was now in good shape for the “very important” World Games, despite the disruption caused by the war. “It’s a big deal when Ukrainian athletes win medals there,” she said. “We have a lot of sumo wrestlers competing and I think we can make a contribution and help raise the image of our country.”
The World Games have been held every four years since 1981 and feature a range of non-Olympic sports from orienteering to billiards. This year’s event was postponed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Athletes from Russia and Belarus have been banned from competing because of the invasion of Ukraine, but Korobko said she believes “sport and politics should not mix.”
“I think there are a lot of athletes in Russia who are against this war,” she said. “I think it would have been a good place for their athletes to tell us their opinions as friends and express their desire for peace.”
Team trainer Kostiantyn Korobko says his father founded the Ukrainian sumo federation in 1999 and helped spark interest in the sport, which he says is now “very popular.”
Ukraine-born wrestler Serhii Sokolovskiy, 25, now competes in Japan’s professional ranks under the name Shishi after making his debut in 2020. Korobko believes sumo has a bright future in Ukraine. “Of course at first it was difficult for everyone to understand, but for small kids the rules are actually pretty simple,” he said.